On Friday, an airstrike by the US at Baghdad’s airport killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Trump owned up to the assassination, alleging that Soleimani had contributed to “terror plots as far away as New Delhi and London”. He promised “major retaliation” if Iran tries to avenge Soleimani’s killing, and threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites.
But United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday ruled out the possibility of the US attacking cultural sites in Iran, The New York Times reported. This directly contradicted President Donald Trump’s threat.
Esper said that it would be a war crime to strike cultural sites that do not have any military value. “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said at the Pentagon when questioned about the cultural sites. After a reporter asked if that was a “no”, he said: “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”
“Let this serve as a warning that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, will be hit very fast and very hard,” Trump had said. “The USA wants no more threats!”
Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage in Iran for over a year from late 1979 after they were captured from the United States embassy in Tehran. They were held for 444 days after the Iranian revolution.
In response to this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter on Monday “Never threaten the Iranian nation.” He added: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290.” Rouhani used the hashtag #IR655 to invoke history. He was referring to the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 by the US military in July 1988, killing all 290 people on board. A US Navy ship had shot down the commercial airline mistaking it for a fighter jet.
On Monday, hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered in Tehran to pay their respects to Soleimani during his funeral. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei led the prayers, and even wept at one point, according to AP. Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, told the crowd on the occasion: “The families of US soldiers in the Middle East will spend their days waiting for death of their children.” Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Soleimani, has also vowed to take revenge.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper also dismissed reports that the United States had planned to pull out its military from Iraq. A letter allegedly talking about the preparations for this had led to speculation.
On Sunday, Trump had threatened Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, with “never seen before” sanctions, hours after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the US troops following the assassinations. “If they do ask us to leave – if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis – we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before,” Trump had said. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
The Iraq Parliament’s move, however, is largely symbolic as there is no deadline for the withdrawal. Besides, the matter is still pending Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.